Cartoonist Pénélope Bagieu is developing quite the reputation as a graphic biographer. After telling the story of Mama Cass in last year’s rich, graceful California Dreamin’, she returns to nonfiction with an expansive collection of biographical shorts: Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked The World (First Second). Bagieu chooses 29 different women to give the comic spotlight to, and a major part of the book’s success is the variety of her subjects, representing a wide range of experiences that takes readers from Ancient Greece to seventh-century Japan to present-day Afghanistan. With all of these time periods and geographic locations fostering different attitudes toward women, Bagieu provides a sprawling look at how they have long had to overcome adversity through their own ingenuity.
The short comics all follow a set format with Bagieu using a nine-panel grid to break down her subjects’ lives with heavy narration and occasional bits of dialogue. Nine-panel grids make for dense comics, and Bagieu covers a lot of material in these pages. She specifies that this shouldn’t be considered a thorough scholarly work, but there’s enough depth to these comics that they tell complete stories with engaging, complex lead characters. While there are big names like Hedy Lamarr, Josephine Baker, and Mae Jemison, some of the most affecting comics showcase women who deserve recognition for smaller victories that are no less inspiring.
Giorgina Reid helped save the Montauk Lighthouse with a brilliant solution to coastline erosion, Bagieu’s account of her life capturing the love and dedication that motivated Reid over the course of her 15-year project. The cartoonish quality of Bagieu’s artwork adds a lightness to the stories, and it’s fascinating to see how her style shifts when she’s covering serious subject matter, like activist Leymah Gbowee’s work with women who had been raped and mutilated during the first Liberian Civil War. The contrast of joy and despair is intense in Gbowee’s story, with one particularly chilling image showing her walking over a dead body on the street while her newborn son smiles cluelessly on her back.
Each comic ends with a two-page illustration that picks a specific emblematic moment from the subject’s life. Bagieu experiments with composition and rendering to give these images visceral and immediate emotional impact. Delia Akeley serves tea to her taxidermist husband, staring at a display foreshadowing the incredible journeys she will have exploring Africa; Josephine Baker proudly stands in a pink spotlight, sharing the stage with her cheetah Chiquita; and Temple Grandin hides on all fours in a page full of cows. Ancient Greek gynecologist Agnodice is represented by pottery that highlights different aspects of her story. After the waves of information in the preceding strips, these clever, bold illustrations give the reader moments to meditate on what they’ve just read, enriching each individual history.